Riding to Win

Business partners, employers and lovers have come and gone. Darolyn Butler-Dial and her horses not only endure but are victorious.

The race costs about $1.25 per mile, and there's no big prize at the end. Oftentimes the grand prize is a bucket or a blanket. The prize Darolyn's most proud of is a ceramic horse she won racing in the Badlands; 66 people started, 16 finished -- Darolyn came in last. The American Endurance Riding Association's motto is "To finish is to win."

At 5:15 a.m. Peter Ansorge wanders the camp carrying a broken, duct-taped bullhorn. As the ride manager, he's the alarm clock. "Get on up, now," he shouts. "It's time to get up."
Mark Dial gives a horse a shot of electrolytes.
Deron Neblett
Mark Dial gives a horse a shot of electrolytes.
Mark Dial gives a horse a shot of electrolytes.
Deron Neblett
Mark Dial gives a horse a shot of electrolytes.

Darolyn's already curling her eyelashes and adding fresh waterproof mascara. She swallows ten vitamins and twirls her hip-long gray hair into a French twist. On her head is a wide-brimmed straw hat decorated with a fresh gardenia.

Usually Darolyn braids turquoise bears into her horse's mane; they symbolize strength and courage. But she doesn't have time today. She does four quick French braids to keep the hair off the horse's neck and to give her something to hold on to when riding uphill.

In the darkness Peter stands at the bottom of the hill, a white lantern at his feet. With his bullhorn, the Greek and Roman literature professor hollers at people to come into the light. Riders in the 50-mile race call out their names and the number grease-penciled on their horses' rumps as Cynthia Ansorge checks them in. The air is so hot and wet the 26 riders are already sweating.

"It's getting light fast," Peter says.

One rider grumbles: "Promises, promises." Darolyn rides up and tells Peter a few of her riders are going to start late.

At 5:45 a.m. Peter sends them off: "Take care, have a good ride," he says. "The trail is open for competition."

It's dark, so most people start slow. Darolyn isn't afraid; she and her horse have ridden this trail dozens of times. Darolyn knows to watch out for clumps of cacti, holes and hard ground. She won't ride on the asphalt and pound her horse's legs -- she rides beside the road in the dirt and grass. Her horse Alley usually knows which path to pick, but sitting three feet higher, Darolyn can see better. "You're always watching, watching, watching," she says. "Like a tree full of owls."

Darolyn takes the lead, putting Alley in a fast trot. They move through the dark at 18 miles an hour over slick rock and past fields of flowers they can't see. No one has a flashlight; they're riding blind. Darolyn doesn't ride any faster in the first five miles than she thinks she can the last five miles.

"The whole trick is to stay aerobic," she says. Sprinting creates lactic acid, which leads to sore muscles and a tired horse. If a horse keeps breathing, it can keep going.

Back at camp a dull white light creeps into the cloud-covered sky as the 25-mile race begins. Nine out of ten horses are Arabians or Arab mixes. Arabians are bred for endurance, with lean, flat muscles. They have a large lung capacity and short, strong backs. Morgans, mustangs, mules, quarter horses and thoroughbreds can enter the race, but usually Arabs win. Darolyn rides only Arabs.

It starts to sprinkle. After 13 miles over dry, rocky road, Darolyn rides up on Alley. It hasn't rained in Bandera for weeks, the creeks are dried up, and there are no puddles on the trail. Usually the first loop of the race has three rivers to cross, but they're dry. It's 7:20 a.m., and Darolyn's the first person back for the vet check. She walks Alley to a tub of water and grabs a cut-up milk jug to scoop water onto the horse's neck, legs and belly. Her time won't stop until the horse's pulse goes down. There are mandatory vet checks every 13 miles; it doesn't matter if it's the 99th mile of a 100-mile race -- if the horse isn't healthy it gets pulled.

Sounding like a tired Patsy Cline, Darolyn sings to relax the horse. She puts one manicured hand on Alley's nose and the other at the pulse point behind Alley's ears. The mare lowers her head -- when a horse's head goes down, the whole body relaxes. At tough competitions authorities won't let riders touch the horse, and that's why Darolyn sings: The horse associates the song with relaxation.

The vet does a Jiffy Lube check on the horse, measuring its hydration by pinching its skin and blanching its gums. With a stethoscope, the vet listens to the gut sounds and watches Alley trot. Alley's yellow report card has all As, but an A-minus in attitude. "That's weird," Darolyn says as she hands her card to the timekeeper.

At the time desk, Randy Moss sits with his three-month-old baby, Elijah. Elijah's mother is riding today. "This is a family sport," Darolyn says. She smiles at the baby. "He'll be riding in the next competition."

Riding with Darolyn is 44-year-old Cathy Dickerson, a British lady who has never raced before. "Did you forget to mention that there was a 25?" asks the vet, Gail Conway.

Darolyn smiles. "Maybe."

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